Justin (vap0rtranz) wrote,

The Teaching Gap and TIMSS

I read The Teaching Gap over the summer and, although I delayed my response until I watched the TIMSS videos, the book renewed my interest in pedagogy.  Essentially Stigler and Hiebert demonstrate that TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, revealed how cultural differences in education are overlooked by reform movements.  Here are a few remarks that I noted while reading their book.  I find it noteworthy that the deeper I delved into this The Teaching Gap, the more interesting it became -- and confrontational.

Comparative Analysis

Stigler and Hiebert attempt to compare the American, Japanese, and German styles of teaching with words, devoting three chapters to descriptions of the TIMSS video and data, but I believe one must sit down, grab pen and paper, and simply watch the teachers and students tell their story.  The videos embody my realization that subtle differences create wholly different classroom auras.  I envy the Japanese students, and hope to offer -- at the minimum -- the German style to students (and never the stereotypical American style). 

A colleague of Stigler and Hiebert summarized these cultural differences rather ambiguously:

"In Japanese lessons, there is the mathematics on one hand, and the students on the other.  The students engage with the mathematics, and the teacher mediates the relationship between the two.  In Germany, there is the mathematics as well, but the teacher owns the mathematics and parcels it out to students as he sees fit, giving facts and explanations at just the right time.  In U.S. lessons, there are the students and there is the teacher.  I have trouble finding the mathematics; I just see interactions between students and teachers." (26)

Behind this ambiguous comparison are the subtle differences that I saw in the videos.  Take chalkboards versus projectors as an example.

Many mathematics teachers in the United States use an overhead projected, whereas almost all teachers in Japan prefer the chalkboard.  Some would say this is a trivial difference and not worth worrying about.  But when we look more closely at this superficial difference we see that it points to a deeper, more significant difference in the way teaching is conducted. (73)

Stiegler and Hiebert articulate -- not the differences of using a chalkboard versus projector, rather -- the purpose endowed to the chalkboard or the projector by teachers.  Essentially American and German teachers use projectors to control the flow of information, slowly revealing more principles and more examples so students do not feel overwhelmed, whereas Japanese teachers use chalkboards to summarize the lesson as it unfolds, where students and teacher contribute to a gradual progression towards that lesson's overriding goal.  So the tools used in a classroom reveal a subtle difference between the cultural expectations of students and teachers, and these cultural expectations are precisely what The Teaching Gap exposes.

One can infer that Japanese teachers believe students learn best by first struggling to solve mathematics problems, then participating in discussions about how to solve them, and then hearing about the pros and cons of different methods and the relationships between them.  Frustration and confusion are taken to be a natural part of the process, because each person must struggle with a situation or problem first in order to make sense of the information he or she hears later.  Constructing connections between methods and problems is thought to require time to explore and invent, to make mistakes, to reflect, and to receive the needed information at an appropriate time. ... Rarely would [Japanese teachers] show students how to solve the problem midway through the lesson.  (91, 93, italics mine)

The Japanese approach to teaching mathematics is the very one I aspire to use because I believe it is practical; it is the way we solve problems in life.  Life presents a problem that takes time to understand, requires some ingenious solution, a solution that might fail and require us to re-think the problem; a process that continues until we arrive at a satisfactory solution.  Of course, we are not alone.  Friends, family, -- even teachers -- guide us through life's problems, but my life is ultimately mine to solve. 

I have toyed with calling this practical problem-solving method "Socratic" ... but merely asking questions avoids the answers, so perhaps I can now call my aspiration the "Japanese" method.

Thesis: Schools Have Cultures

But there is a fallacy: adopting a pedagogical method without considering whether it fits our culture.  Stiegler and Hiebert foresaw American teachers misunderstanding the data and jumping on the Japanese bandwagon:

After viewing the Japanese lessons, [an American] fourth-grade teacher decided to shift from his traditional approach to a more problem-solving approach such as we had seen on the videotapes.  Instead of asking short-answer questions as he regularly did, he began his next lesson by presenting a problem and asking students to spend ten minutes working on a solution.  Although the teacher changed his behavior to correspond with the actions of the teacher in the videotape, the students, not having seen the video or reflecting upon their own participation, failed to respond as the students on the tape did.  They played their traditional roles.  They waited to be shown how to solve the problem.  The lesson did not succeed. (99)

This Japanese lesson failed because, The Teaching Gap continues, the American students expected the traditional approach -- the American approach.  American students expect a math teacher to review the previous lesson by going over last night's homework, introducing a new topic with some definitions of terms, followed by several, teacher-driven examples of the type of problems found within this topic, all finalized by assigning similar problems that students solve individually, in groups, and at home.  This expectation is what Stiegler and Hiebert call a "script" because it evokes connotations of a dramatic play where actors fill their respective roles, reading different words but following some general form.  This fourth-grade teacher adopted the Japanese script that was, quite literally, foreign to students sitting in American math classes.

Stiegler and Hiebert argue that these scripts reveal the culture of school often overlooked by education reform movements, like the federal, NCLB's push for "highly qualified teachers".

... teachers follow scripts that they acquire as members of their culture, and their effectiveness depends on the scripts they use.  Recruiting highly qualified teachers will not result in steady improvement as long as they continue to use the same scripts.  It is the scripts that must be improved. (134)

Usually culture is attributed with temporally static properties so it appears that The Teaching Gap yields to some fatalistic demise of education.  On the contrary, its authors directly respond to such pessimism.

The reader could get the impression that it is impossible to change teaching because there are so many cultural factors that keep it in place.  It is crucial, at this point, to distinguish between the wider American culture and the culture of schools.  The are related, but they are not the same.  What is needed to improve teaching is a change in school culture, and this is possible. (144, italics their's)

This possibility is attained, the authors argue, by shifting the focus on teaching instead of teachers, schools or students.  The distinction between the larger, American culture from the culture of American schools merely allows citizens to focus attention on a "subculture", so to say, and solve problems relative to this subset of culture.  As I recently argued on my journal and my foundations of education class, a person believing he battles culture via counterculture, subculture or cultural reform is handicapped by funneling all his effort against some monolithic institution (aka. culture) instead of fellow citizens; instead of the individual.  By recognizing that I am reading a script -- recognizing one's cultural role, I dare say -- I believe citizens are free to change culture.  Thus, the individual teacher who reforms himself, his colleagues, and eventually the greater practice of teaching.

Because of America's focus on teachers, we tend to look to individual innovators for signs of improvement.  Because the usual methods of teaching are recognized as uninspiring, we look to individuals who have figured out clever ways around these standard methods.  We shine spotlights on the unusual, ... They are given special awards.  The standard, routine way of teaching is treated as just routine.  Celebrating individual innovations is fine, but individual innovations will never improve teaching in the average classroom.  They cannot do so because they do not change standard practice.  And if we hope to improve the practice of the profession, it is the standard, common practice that must improve.  (175)

This argument is used by other reforms and has a tendency to focus on pedagogy, so Stiegler and Hiebert balance teaching reform with a clear statement of the role students play:

The goal of teaching is students' learning.  The goal of improving teaching is improving students' learning.  ... The question of whether and how these changes are improving students' learning in the teacher's classroom gets lost in the sheer effort to change. (133)

Students, teachers and schools should, I believe, reflect as individuals, recommend in dialogue and contribute to the community whatever ideal education system we, as Americans, adopt.  This anthropomorphic and sociological approach is one I find includes the dynamics of "teaching for tests", "teacher autonomy", "individualized learning programs", and all the plethora of critical jargon flug against pedagogy.

 A Solution: Lesson-Study

The authors carry us through the philosophical aspirations of education reform so we arrive at their solution.  The Teaching Gap criticizes previous de facto reform movements by attributing their failure to a need for change based on a lack of data provided by TIMSS and lacking a clear goal that includes school culture.

The American approach has been to write and distribute reform documents and ask teachers to implement the recommendations contained in such documents. (12)
Traditional research results are first validated in studies, then communicated in research journals to educators, who must then figure out how they apply to the classroom. (165)

I agree with both criticisms as I read the latest and greatest recommendations in The Physics Teacher.  The chapter entitled "Beyond Reform: Japan's Approach to the Improvement of Classroom Teaching" should be quoted in its entirety because it prescribes the changes these authors suggest, but for brevity's sake, here is its conclusion:

The collaborative nature of lesson study balances the self-critiquing of individual teachers with the idea that improved teaching is a joint process, not the province or responsibility of any individual.  This idea is embodied in the fact that when Japanese teachers plan a lesson collaboratively, they treat the result as a joint product whose ownership is shared by all in the group.  When one teacher teaches the lesson and the others observe, problems that emerge are generally attributed to the lesson as designed by the group, not to the teacher who implemented the lesson.  It thus becomes possible for teachers to be critical without offending their colleague.  The discussion can focus more pointedly and deeply on the merits and deficiencies of the lesson, and on the process of revising and improving it. (125)

The lesson study is suggested as a practical and cultural change in American education that envelops the "teacher-as-researcher" reform movement and eventually yields the data generated by Japanese students in the TIMSS.

... the features of lesson study, as practiced in Japan, are very similar to those reported by American researchers as characterizing successful experimental teacher-development programs. ... One of the goals of this movement is to encourage teachers to engage in research, thereby creating in the teacher a temperament oriented to inquiry and a disposition toward investigating one's own practice. (151)

Rather than an educational revolution, Stiegler and Hiebert forewarn that this pedagogy will only gradually progress American classrooms towards the standardized goals held by previous education movements.

The aim is to produce small but solid improvements in one or two lessons with modest goals.  Japanese teachers, who have engaged in this process for many years, often redesign only two or three lessons over the year. (161)

The authors argue that gradual improvement is precisely what previous movements dismissed as temporally ineffective, yet the data indicate that American "quick fixes" are not meeting expectations.


I remain skeptical about how viable the suggestions of The Teaching Gap are for American education, but I like its approach.  It is based on an international study of quantitative (standardized testing) and qualitative (classroom observation) measures, so scientifically I need only examine the definitions of TIMSS to determine whether Stiegler and Hiebert's arguments rationally follow the data.  Regardless, their anthropological and sociological approach is the first I have read and it encouraged me to continue learning how one teaches.  As an epilogue, I want to quote the authors' defense of teachers:

The lack of confidence in teachers is not limited to public and political communities.  Even educators display a certain skepticism of teacher's inclination or ability to improve teaching.  Over the years, curriculum developers often have tried to create "teacher-proof" curricula -- content that is to be presented to students in such a straightforward way that is could not be distorted by incompetent teachers.  There is also a long-standing degree of distrust between administrators and teachers, illustrated by that fact that principals usually observe teachers only when it is time to evaluate them.  Teachers in turn, take a very suspicious view of being observed.  This mistrust ruins one of teachers' richest learning opportunities -- the opportunity to observe the practice of others and be observed yourself. (170)
Tags: books / reviews, government & politics, math, school, science
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